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Irish Dark Side

I've been reading and writing a lot about my Irish (and near-Irish) ancestors recently -- sweet, sad, brave, and loving -- the persecuted victims of poverty and starvation fighting the good fight and seeking to reinvent themselves in the New World.

This weekend we saw two movies that showed the dark side: The Magdalene Sisters and the documentary that inspired it, Sex in a Cold Climate. Traditionally, Irish Catholics have had a narrow opinion of sex: it is bad (unless used to fill the house with children). After seeing those movies, it's easy to find similarities between the "devoutest" Catholics in Ireland and the Taliban.

In the 19th century, the Sisters of Mercy set up a string of "Magdalene asylums." They were originally meant as reformatories for prostitutes, but quickly became a dumpling place for unwed mothers and then for any other girl who seemed sexual. And often for rape victims and for orphans who seemed "at risk" for becoming pregnant and adding another dependent child to the orphanage. Once families handed over their wayward daughters, they were often never heard from again.

The asylums operated laundry services, where the girls worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. They were not allowed to speak or have any friendships. Their lives were about doing penance for being bad. The nuns caned them and sexually humiliated them and then the priest would drop by and pick out a girl to have some form of sex with before Mass. (Why do priests seem to be the ones exempt from Catholic distaste for sex?)

This organization was at its peak in the 1960s and the last one didn't close till the 1990s. They say as many as 30,000 girls and women may have been incarcerated in these facilities.

Our picture of evildoers tends to be male. These movies show that Abu Ghraib's Lyndie England was not an aberration. Women are perfectly capable of cruelty. And anyone who went to Catholic schools, at least through the 1960s, knows just how cruel nuns can be.

My conclusion is this: In a closed society and whenever one group feels morally superior to another, torture results. It simply doesn't matter what the original intentions were. Maybe the loftier the original intentions -- saving souls or preventing "another 9/11" -- the more justified cruelty becomes. Secrets are bad. Self-righteousness justifies intolerance. Secrets + self-righteousness is a surefire recipe for sadism.




The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

Review by James Berardinelli

Sex in a Cold Climate (1998). TV documentary that inspired the movie

Review on the World Socialist Web Site.